Public Defender Outcomes Compared to the “Field”: An Update for 2014-15 through 2018-19

Five years have passed since we measured the results obtained by public defenders against the achievements of other attorneys in criminal and indigent-defense cases, so we are more than due for an update.

The previous post found that public defenders and other defense attorneys attained similar success rates—18% and 15%, respectively—for the period 2008-09 through 2013-14. Over the next five terms the cumulative success rate for public defenders stayed at this level (17%), but it dropped to 8% for lawyers from other firms and organizations.[1] In fact, during the two most recent years (see Table 1), the only defense wins came in public-defender cases.[2]

Turning to the question of votes cast by individual justices (Table 2), we find to no surprise that throughout the decade the court’s two liberals (Justices Abrahamson and A.W. Bradley) were much more likely to side with the defense than were any of the other justices. However, their approval was not distributed equally among the two categories of attorneys featured here, for they accepted defense arguments in 69% of public-defender cases and only 55% of the remaining cases.

It is also interesting to compare the votes of Justices Crooks and Prosser with those of their replacements—Justices R.G. Bradley and Kelly. In public-defender cases, all four justices voted for the defense with similar frequency (20%, 19%, 19%, and 18%, respectively). For Justices Crooks and Prosser, this degree of support changed very little for defendants represented by attorneys other than public defenders (17% and 18%, respectively), but such was by no means the case for Justices R.G. Bradley and Kelly. Their rate of agreement with lawyers in this category fell to roughly half the level extended to public defenders.

Justice Rebecca Dallet recorded the most dramatic difference between her acceptance of public-defender arguments (50%) and those offered by other defense lawyers (20%), though the figures stem from only her first year on the bench. Consequently, it’s possible that either, or both, of these rates are still some distance from their long-term norms, which we will discover in our next update.


[1] I have excluded a handful of cases—per curiam decisions and a few that were difficult to categorize because of the specific facts or a fractured decision.

[2] These cases were State v. Andre L. Scott; State v. Patrick H. Dalton; State v. Faith N. Reed; and State v. Raytrell K. Fitzgerald.

About Alan Ball

Alan Ball is a Professor of History at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

SCOWstats offers numerical analysis of the voting by Wisconsin Supreme Court justices on diverse issues over the past 91 years.

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